5 potential candidates for Blue Jays' rotation

November 13th, 2020

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays jumped out in front of the market to sign starter Robbie Ray to a one-year, $8 million deal, but they’re hoping that isn’t their biggest splash on the pitching market this offseason.

Widely expected to be one of baseball’s most aggressive teams, Toronto would love to add to the top of its rotation. With ace Hyun Jin Ryu and No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson offering more upside than this staff has seen in years, the door is wide open for the Blue Jays to push this rotation from good to great.

That search will start in free agency, where more names could emerge following the non-tender deadline on Dec. 2, but the trade market cannot be ruled out, especially given the club’s ability to take on money in trades.

“There are definitely pitchers that are being talked about, there’s no doubt about that,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “Determining what ‘available’ means will depend upon the price and how they view our system. One of the most encouraging feelings and things we’re hearing from other teams is that we have the farm system to make those trades if it presents itself.”

At this point last offseason, it would have been more sensible to discuss mid-range arms and bounce-back candidates. That tier this year features plenty of familiar names, like free agents Jake Odorizzi -- who the Blue Jays have liked in the past -- and Corey Kluber -- who president and CEO Mark Shapiro and Atkins know well from their Cleveland days. There’s also J.A. Happ, Chris Archer, Matt Shoemaker, Garrett Richards, Jose Quintana, Drew Smyly and many others, but the Blue Jays have in-house depth to fill the back end of their rotation and are ready to aim higher.

The Mets' Marcus Stroman and the Giants' Kevin Gausman accepted their qualifying offers, which thinned the market near the top, but high-end options remain. Here are the names you can expect to hear more of in the coming weeks.

RHP Trevor Bauer (30) -- free agent
5-4, 1.73 ERA, 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner

Some baseball fans know Bauer as the hard-throwing 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner who dominated with a 1.73 ERA. Others know him more as the polarizing right-hander who threw a Hail Mary pass over the centre-field wall in Kansas City in July 2019 after a poor start. Blue Jays fans remember the '16 American League Championship Series, when Bauer cut his finger on his drone, had his Game 2 start pushed back to Game 3 and then was removed after just two-thirds of an inning when that cut opened back up.

Toronto's evaluation of Bauer will need to go beyond his stat line, given how often the club has spoken about the value of clubhouse fit. Bauer remains the top pitcher on the market, though, and will still generate a great deal of interest around baseball in a depressed market.

RHP Masahiro Tanaka (32) -- free agent
3-3, 3.56 ERA

A reunion with the Yankees might be the likeliest outcome here, but Tanaka’s consistency will give him a much wider market. Typically a safe bet for something in the neighborhood of a 3.75 ERA over 170 innings, Tanaka might not be an ace, but he’s a very steady piece to have in the No. 2 or 3 slot.

LHP James Paxton (32) -- free agent
1-1, 6.64 ERA

Back surgery in February and a left flexor strain later in the year limited Paxton to just 20 1/3 innings in 2020, but the Canadian remains one of the most talented left-handed starters in baseball when he’s healthy. With strikeout rates above 10 per nine innings in each of the past four seasons, Paxton’s peripheral numbers are still impressive and he’s expected to be fully healthy for '21.

Paxton was originally drafted by the Blue Jays 37th overall in 2009 in what looked like a feel-good story, but that quickly fell apart as the two sides couldn't reach an agreement. The risk involved with signing Paxton is real, but on a shorter-term deal, this upside has to appeal to Toronto.

RHP Taijuan Walker (28) -- free agent
4-3, 2.70 ERA

The Blue Jays liked Walker enough to deal for him at the 2020 Trade Deadline, and all he did was give them more reasons to explore a reunion in free agency. Walker was excellent with Toronto, with a 1.37 ERA over six starts, and at just 28 years old with his body finally cooperating, he’s hitting the market at an interesting time.

If the Blue Jays believe that Walker has upside beyond a mid-rotation starter, this is a spot where they could pounce, but it’s possible they might explore other options first. They like both the player and the person, though, and Walker appeared to be a natural fit with this young roster. Expect to see him earn a multiyear deal wherever he lands.

RHP Lance Lynn (33) -- Texas Rangers
6-3, 3.32 ERA

The trade market needs to be considered here, so let’s have Lynn stand in to represent that. Lynn has one year remaining on his deal at $9.3 million and is expected to be available in trades this winter after the Rangers held on to him at the Trade Deadline. The Blue Jays had interest then, and their needs haven’t drastically changed.

Lynn has been excellent with the Rangers over the past two seasons, finishing fifth and sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting in those seasons. With a career ERA of 3.57 and the durability that could allow him to be one of the few pitchers to chase 200-plus innings, there will be plenty of suitors as the Rangers look to kick-start their franchise.

While the trade market doesn’t seem to be Plan A for the Blue Jays, it can’t be forgotten altogether. Money matters more than ever for many clubs this offseason, and Toronto should be one of few teams willing and able to take on contracts in trades. It’s a strategy the Jays have nailed in the past, and could again.